It would be wonderful if I could say negative body image and eating disorders could be fixed if we changed things in the advertising industry and media, but then we wouldn’t be considering all the complex issues which contribute to our overall self-image. At Alsana, we definitely see a trend with eating disorder clients and social media impacting both their body image and their sense of self. On one hand, social media can be a great tool in recovery if you join the right groups and know people who are positive and supportive. But, it can also be a challenge to work through your list of friends and followers and cut people off who are detrimental to recovery. The potential harm of social media is not limited to content posted, selfies, or comments, but the advertisements as well. If you have ever historically posted anything about weight loss or body image, the newest weight loss miracle and diet fad are the only things which come up as Ads for years to come. This isn’t to say the media and advertising are causing eating disorders, but they certainly contribute to the problem. Sometimes it’s simply easier for individuals in recovery to avoid social media altogether.
As a society, we tend to focus on weight loss, exercise and appearance as a mode to cover up emotions, a coping mechanism we’re programmed to believe will give us satisfaction. This extends to both sexes, as both are exposed to distorted images and messages. Our girls are taught to be pretty, skinny, smile and be happy. And our boys are influenced to ignore emotions and to “man up; six-pack abs, to work out all the time, and to be super muscular in order to be a ‘real’ man.
According to studies cited by the National Eating Disorders Association, 42 percent of girls in first through third grade want to be thinner, 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, and 51 percent of 9- and 10-year-old girls feel better about themselves if they are on a diet.
This tells me that from an extraordinarily young age we’re inundating young women and men with perfect ideal bodies that have been Photo-shopped and completely stripped of any reality; and we’re telling them the only individuals who become models, musicians, actors, celebrities are thin and beautiful. It sends a really difficult message to our kids about success and fulfillment. Something we often discuss with clients is that you could look perfect, have the perfect body, be at the weight you think you want to be, and you still wouldn’t be happy because appearance is not what brings people happiness. We have to help re-define happiness in our culture.
It’s important to foster enough self and enough positive self-identity to approach media and say to yourself: “I don’t really care what the women in Ads look like”. We derive this from having solid relationships and strong role models in our life with our family and friends. It’s not necessarily in our individual power to change the nature of media, how designers design clothing, or how much Photoshop is utilized to distort images. As mothers, sisters and women as well as men and fathers, we need to be talking to our kids openly about media and digital imaging and blatantly addressing that this is not reality.
When you’re looking at magazines in the checkout line with your kids- what a great opportunity to say, “You know that’s not real right? That’s not what a real woman/man looks like; I want you to be healthy and happy, what makes you healthy and happy?”
It’s also important to recognize where our kids’ attention is focused- is my daughter or son idealizing models, constantly looking at magazines and social media obsessing about these pictures? We have to pay attention so we can identify when we need to talk about what is really going on under our noses. Some helpful questions to ask are: What are you unhappy about? What is really going on here? Why is my son/ daughter idealizing this? These are the ways in which we can change the impact media has on our families.
It’s not enough to just have the dialogue, we also have to set the example of a healthy body image, self-care, and healthy self-respect. We can’t say one thing and do another. If you stand in front of the mirror, pick yourself apart, weigh yourself three times a day and then tell your daughter she’s beautiful no matter what she looks like, she’s not going to hear that message because she’s going to see how you behave. We have to set the example, talk about it, and be open and honest. I don’t have to love my body every day, and it’s okay if you don’t, but let’s talk about why and be honest.
We have the ability to pull the power out of the messages kids are inundated with all day every day and to put all of that into a proper context which is fantasy. There is no harm in fantasy, but let’s draw the line between that and reality. In reality, we find happiness from a life that’s fulfilled and meaningful and has relationships in it. Anything we can do to show kids you can be anything you want to be you can be healthy and happy and you don’t have to look perfect, is a step in the right direction. When we work at pulling the focus away from appearance to what really matters in life, negative body image and eating disorders are not only treatable but preventable.